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First Wren lost in action remembered

16 October 2018
Memorial services were held on both sides on the Irish Sea to remember the heaviest loss of life in those waters during the Great War – and the first Wren to die in the line of duty.

Around one hundred years to the day that the Royal Mail Steamer Leinster was torpedoed just off the Irish coast, descendants, government and military leaders and veterans’ groups gathered in Dun Laoghaire near Dublin to remember the 500 people killed in the tragedy – just one month and a day before the Great War ended.

In Plymouth, female sailors past and present gathered at the city’s imposing war memorial to remember 21-year-old Josephine Carr, a clerk/shorthand typist, who was on her way to her first draft aboard the steamer.

And in Holyhead – the Leinster’s destination on October 10 1918 – veterans groups and townsfolk held a service of commemoration, culminating in a parade and wreath laying at the Welsh port’s cenotaph.

For the best part of 100 years, these people have been forgotten. They died within sight of Ireland’s shores. It’s time that we remembered them.

Philip Lecane

The loss of the Leinster is regarded as Ireland’s worst maritime tragedy, with the dead from across the then-British Empire. Many of those were represented at the main national act of commemoration in Dun Laoghaire as well as a pilgrimage by boat to the wreck site, where wreaths were cast into the Irish Sea by relatives of those lost in the time-honoured maritime tradition.

The Germans had been negotiating for peace when the steamship – mostly carrying military personnel returning from leave – crossed the path of UB123, which sent three torpedoes into the Leinster.

She sank in a matter of minutes, taking most of the 700 souls aboard down with her. The vast majority of the dead were soldiers, but victims included two naval gunners assigned to protect the ship, several naval ratings returning from leave, plus Miss Carr.

She had been a Wren for just three weeks and was last seen in the ship’s reading room. Two more members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service were aboard and survived: Maureen Waters, also from Cork, and Lilian Barry.

Wren Carr is commemorated on Plymouth Naval Memorial so the city’s Association of Wrens branch, former Wrens and serving personnel placed a floral tribute on the monument. Prayers were also said at The Wrens’ Church, St Mary le Strand, London.

Historian Philip Lecane who’s spent two decades researching the Leinster tragedy said the 100th anniversary restored the disaster to its rightful place, especially in his native Ireland.

“For the best part of 100 years, these people have been forgotten. They died within sight of Ireland’s shores. It’s time that we remembered them.”

William Byrne’s great grandfather John Donohoe was the Leinster’s chief stoker. “I think the families are very pleased that the tragedy has transformed into something which is very unifying. It’s been very satisfying.”

The Leinster was bound for Holyhead – and, as in Ireland, a service was held in the Anglesey port before locals paused to observe a march through the town by veterans’ groups, ending with wreath-layings at the cenotaph before the haunting notes of the Last Post drifted across the water.

In 1918, the sinking was not just a personal tragedy, it provoked international outrage not seen since the sinking of the Lusitania three and a half years earlier – and hardened the resolve of politicians to deal firmly with the foe in any coming peace negotiations. As for UB123, she struck a mine a week later and was lost with all hands.

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